Red Cedar ride 'n' glide

Along a popular trail in western Wisconsin, a hardy tourist can take in the sights by water and by land.

A bicyclist rides along the Red Cedar River.
The trail follows the Red Cedar River between Menomonie and the Chippewa River.

There are certain bicycle trails that inspire loyalty in those who ride them.

For many, it's the trail that's closest to home. For others, it's a trail with a lot of wildlife, or a place to cool off.

One of my favorite trails, the 14½-mile Red Cedar State Trail out of Menomonie, Wis., has those things and more. It's one of the least crowded trails, because the crushed-limestone surface keeps some people away.

And it's one of the longest, counting the 30-mile Chippewa State Trail, which takes up where the Red Cedar leaves off and continues on to Eau Claire and Durand.

This trail even has a craft brewery next to its trailhead, Lucette Brewing, which serves wood-fired pizza as well as ales.

But the Red Cedar State Trail has yet one thing more: a fast-moving river, once used to float giant rafts of lumber down to the Chippewa, before the Milwaukee Road line was built.

One September, a friend and I decided to canoe down the river, then bicycle back.

It was a complicated plan: Drive to the end of the trail, lock the bikes near a bridge, drive back to Menomonie's Riverside Park and launch the canoe. Paddle to the end of the trail, lock up the canoe, ride the bikes back and then go pick up the canoe.

We put in at Riverside Park, where a fisherman sat under a tree, three lines radiating from his lawn chair. The river was low, and we soon learned to train a suspicious eye on any kind of ripples that could betray boulders.

A few bicyclists wove along the trail, and they all waved when they saw us; in the 90-degree heat, we were comrades.

After a stretch of whitewater, we paddled in peace, past canyon-like walls of gold sand, with ripples down their sheer faces that mirrored the river.

Red Cedar State Trail from Menomonie.
The Red Cedar State Trail heads south from Menomonie.

We passed Downsville, a picnic table marking its canoe take-out, and went under a trestle bridge, one of 11 along the trail.

On a sandbar we stopped for a swim, fighting to stay abreast of the current. Getting out, we traced the tracks of raccoon and sandpipers on the sugar sand and looked at the lacy leaves of dune plants.

As we paddled on past wooded bluffs, a bald eagle wheeled overhead. The oak barrens and bottomland forest along the trail are good places to see wildlife; in the spring, eagles, osprey and red-shouldered hawks often are spotted, along with blue and green heron.

It took us 3½ hours to get to the bridge at Dunnville and County Road Y. Then, on our bikes, we rode through the Dunnville Wildlife Area to the Red Cedar's confluence with the Chippewa.

There, we paused on the 860-foot trestle bridge high above the wide, pancake-flat bottomlands, through which the Chippewa carved a looping path into the horizon.

The trail looked tempting; it's seal-coated, a step up from crushed limestone. But it was getting late, so we turned around and headed up the Red Cedar. The stretch from Dunnville to Downsville was shady and intimate, through woods and small meadows.

Once, our approach alarmed a flock of a dozen young turkeys, who ran helter-skelter along the path before fleeing into the forest on sticklike legs.

We passed an old cut-stone quarry and crossed the river at Downsville. By the time we got to the Devil's Punchbowl, a dripping rock wall that looms above the trail near Menomonie, we were sharing the path with runners and dog-walkers.

At Riverside Park, a boy was pulling a silver bass from the water.

Then we retrieved the canoe and hurried to a local restaurant, where we gratefully plopped into comfy chairs and had cold ales while contemplating the daily specials of pasta and grilled meats and fish.

It was good to spend a day in the tracks of 1800s riverpigs and gandy dancers, but it was also good to get back to civilization.

Trip Tips: Red Cedar Trail from Menomonie, Wisconsin

Getting there: Drive through downtown Menomonie on Wisconsin 25 and, on the south edge of downtown, turn west on 29. The trail starts in Riverside Park, on the west side of the river.

Mabel Tainter theater in Menomonie.
The Mabel Tainter was built in 1889 as a tribute to a lumber baron's daughter.

Menomonie is an hour east of the Twin Cities and just south of I-94.

Where to eat: Lucette Brewing, on Wisconsin 29 next to Riverside Park serves craft beer and wood-fired pizza Wednesday through Sunday.

Downtown Menomonie has many good places to eat, including the Acoustic Cafe on Main Street and Log Jam Bar & Eatery on Broadway.

Red Cedar State Trail: The crushed-limestone trails runs 14½ miles south of Menomonie to the Dunnville Wildlife Area.

There, it connects to the Chippewa River State Trail, which runs 6½ miles southwest to Durand and 23½ miles northeast to Eau Claire.

Bicycle rental: Four miles south of Menomonie, the Irvington Campground, across the river from the bike trail on County Road D, rents bikes and also canoes, kayaks and tubes.

Rustic Roads: The five-mile Rustic Road 89 parallels the bike trail toward Downsville, passing the Devil's Punchbowl, a small canyon cut into the bluff at the end of the last ice age. Stairs lead into it.

On the south side of the Chippewa River, the 6.7-mile Rustic Road 107 parallels the Chippewa River State Trail.

Menomonie: There are many interesting shops on Main Street.

Stop by the ornate Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, built in 1890 by Andrew Tainter, one of the founders of the giant lumber company Knapp, Stout Co., in memory of his 19-year-old daughter.

For more, see Menomonie's golden oldies.

Last updated on April 3, 2021

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